(…continued) On July 8, 1741, in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards preached what everyone agrees is the most famous sermon in American history. The title of it was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It is all in God’s hands, says Jesus in today’s Gospel, and Edwards tells us to not take that fact lightly. This sermon has been mocked and ridiculed by many foolish people who know very little about God. Jonathan Edwards knew as much about God as any human being ever has. He is universally acclaimed as the greatest theologian in the history of this nation. And, Edwards says, be careful, pay attention, take this very seriously, because God can get angry. The sermon is filled with Bible verses. The tone of the sermon is a little over the top for me, but the Biblical warning contained even in the title is a true one– ‘Don’t trifle with God.’ God is gracious and loving and forgiving and patient and merciful and kind and compassionate. All of that is in the Bible, and that is what we all want from God. So look to God for that, and do not trifle with his warning, ignore his Word, or despise His commands.
The Gospel is simple. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so; if I love him when I die he will take me home on high,’ goes the old song. Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, says the Bible verse. Simple, but it raises questions. How do we love God? What if it becomes hard to believe in Jesus? Could God really be angry with me? How do I know if I am believing or loving enough? Sometimes it can be very confusing and hard to understand—like in today’s Gospel story. Why did Jesus answer that man in such a strange way, so as to confuse even the disciples?
I don’t know, but I do know if the man had not walked away, he would have heard more. He would have heard that even though it was impossible for him to get eternal life, it was possible for God. And then that, as I pointed out, leads to more questions, for which there are more answers. This life of faith is not so simple that you are going to get it all on the first time through. That is why the Bible says, pay attention, keep in touch, remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, say your prayers, and so on. Relationships are built by time spent together. Don’t walk away sorrowful like the man in the text. Keep listening.
“Faith comes by hearing the message of Christ,” says Romans 10:17, by hearing it again and again and again. And the Holy Spirit takes that Word and brings it from our ears into our hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity we say we believe in when we say the Apostle’s Creed each week. In his catechism explanation to that third part of the creed, Martin Luther said this: “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and keeps me in the one true faith.”
Keep in touch, and God will take care of the rest of what you need. But don’t walk away. The Bible is filled with God’s Word to us, words of hope and words of wisdom and words of warning and words of caution and words of mercy. And it is all in the context of that amazing grace of God’s love which is there for all who will have it.
After all the confusion, today’s Gospel reading does end with a word of comfort and hope and encouragement to Peter and the rest of the disciples and to anyone else who was still listening. It is too bad the man with the questions wasn’t there for it. He walked away sorrowful before he got to hear the whole message. He should have stuck around longer.
An eager sophomore walks into the high school chemistry room for the first day of class. He has heard about all the interesting and fun experiments he is going to get to do in that lab, he can’t wait to get started, and he has a million questions. What is that poster with all those squares and letters?, he asks. That’s the periodic table, says the teacher, we’ll get to that. When do we get to do an experiment?, he asks. Not for a while, says the teacher. Where are all the chemicals we are going to mix together?, he asks. Locked up, says the teacher, so you can’t get at them until you know how dangerous they are. What is this for?, the student asks, turning a valve. That’s the gas for the Bunsen burners, says the exasperated teacher, and turn it off before you blow us all up. Learning about chemistry takes a while, and you aren’t going to get it all on the first day.
Learning the faith and building a relationship with Jesus also takes a while. Being saved can happen in a moment, but that is only the beginning of a life-long journey. Stay on the path, even when it becomes difficult or confusing. Don’t walk away, like the sorrowful man in the text. Keep the faith, because in the end, the fact that it is all in God’s hands really is good news. The best news you will ever get in this life. Just stick around long enough for it to sink in.
Philippians 2:12b-13 — Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner. Amen.
–Ancient Jesus Prayer